How to Activate Your Brand Community with Kristen LaFrance
Outdoor Voices, Hill House Home, Athletic Greens, Glossier, and Modern Fertility. What do these brands have in common? Strong communities.
As CACs continue to rise, DTC brands are feeling the pressure to build and launch some sort of community. But, what is community, when is the right time to get started, and how do you activate it?
To understand how to make community actionable, we sat down with Kristen LaFrance, the director of community at Repeat. In addition to her full-time role, LaFrance runs the Slack community DTC Fam and consults for a handful of DTC brands, helping create community from the ground up. Now, let’s dive in.
The Rise of Community
LaFrance entered the DTC world right as CACs started to rise. Then, when Apple rolled out iOS 14.5 updates (including privacy protections), community entered the conversation. DTC brands realized they could no longer throw money at Facebook and see an immediate ROI.
She started wondering, “If acquisition is so expensive, how are DTC brands continuing to grow? How are they leveraging their existing customer base to build long-term relationships and profitable channels?”
Then, the pandemic hit, and then “How can brands bridge the gap between offline and online?” and “How do we recreate the magic experience of retail online?” became the two questions at the forefront of every DTC operator’s mind.
Since so many people found connection and community online during the pandemic, brands started to wonder if they could do the same. Soon enough, community became a buzzword and almost table stakes for any newly-launched, DTC brand.
However, building community isn’t as easy as it looks.
“Community is a hot topic right now and super buzzy in DTC marketing. But, community isn’t something you can simply copy and paste. It’s a unique approach to acquisition and retention.”
Find Your “Why”
Before diving headfirst into community, LaFrance encourages founders and operators to ask, “Why? Why are you creating a community in the first place?”
“Community means and looks different for every brand,” notes LaFrance. So before anything else, she recommends asking the following questions:
- What does community mean to us?
- Why do we want to build a community?
- What is the purpose of the community?
- What does the ultimate golden state of community look like to you?
- What does success look like?
- What resources do we have to apply to community building and management?
Most people think community is a Slack or Facebook group, but in reality, community looks different for every brand.
“You need to sit down and ask yourself, ‘When we say we want community, what does that mean? What are we picturing? Why? What are the goals?’” explains LaFrance.
Above all else, you shouldn’t create community for the sake of creating community. “Are you creating community because someone on Twitter told you to or because someone said that every brand needs a community? Your reasoning must come from a deeper, internal purpose. Without a strong mission or reason, it’s never going to work,” adds LaFrance.
The need and desire for a community should stem from your customers. In an ideal world, your community should drive your “why.”
“There isn’t a community playbook or a blanket definition of what community means and how it functions. It’s up to you to set the vision and the purpose.”
In It for the Long Run
When’s the right time to dive into community?
“It depends on your product category, how much education is needed, where and how customers want to be connected, and what resources you have to build,” says LaFrance. “ It doesn’t always make sense to go into community.”
LaFrance’s recommendation: explore community when you can commit to it.
“Community takes a long time, requires deep investment, and often doesn’t show a direct ROI on your data sheet. You gotta know it’s a long-term play,” adds LaFrance.
So many founders feel pressure to build community into a brand from day one, which may be the best time for you. But again, it all comes back to why you’re creating it in the first place and if you’re ready to fully commit to it.
“Timing-wise, community should happen when you know you can truly commit.”
There are so many different frameworks or ways to look at and structure a community. LaFrance views community more as a set of orbits.
The center is a product or service with different cohorts of people orbiting around at different distances. If your product is the Sun, all of the planets orbiting around are your levels of community.
Every brand will have different levels or orbits, but these are some common layers LaFrance sees (in order of proximity).
- The founder and the founding team
- The internal team members
- Brand ambassadors and influencers
- The VIP customers (This must be defined by your specific goals. Often these are customers who have the highest LTV and are the loudest and proudest about your products.)
- The repeat customers (ones who have bought many times, but haven't engaged with your brand outside of the transaction)
- The testers: the customers who have bought a variety pack, who have bought 1-2 times but haven't engaged further or re-purchased
- The people who haven’t tried your product, but connect to your brand mission or story
Once you identify those orbits, notice where it makes sense to build community and what orbits you want to connect with based on the goals you set.
Does a community where all these people coexist make sense or not? Is it better to focus on one orbit and then move to the next one once you have enough resources?
There’s no right answer. It’s up to you.
“Understand who’s closest to your product. Then, see where it makes sense to build a community. You don’t need a community that serves everyone.”
How to Operationalize Community
Internal buy-in, especially from senior leadership, is instrumental in creating a successful and authentic brand community.
“You can’t just hire a community director and say go build community. Everyone on the team has to buy into the vision, what community means, why it’s important, and how to measure success,” explains LaFrance.
The day-to-day of managing a community isn’t limited to community managers. “Your community pulls in all different types of customers, so you need all your internal teams to be involved,” adds LaFrance. “A community member might have a question that you don’t have the answer to, and then you’ll have to pull in a head of operations, growth marketer, etc. So, everyone has to understand and buy in to the importance of the community”
How can community managers get buy-in from the entire team? LaFrance recommends taking the time to build out an entire strategy, including key objectives that connect the community goals back to overall business goals.
- How will the community impact your sales team?
- How can you ensure the community is valuable to the CX team instead of another channel for them to manage?
- What about social or content? Can the community impact those channels (spoiler alert: it should)?
- How do you see community making acquisition and product development easier?
A community manager has to be able to zoom out, see the full picture, see the company-wide impacts of community, and consistently sell the mission internally.
Set numbers if possible, she says. If the quantitative data isn’t there, she suggests looking at the qualitative data from the community itself. That information will help other teams drive long-term decisions and success. Plus, it will give your team the confidence and strength to invest in community and make it a priority.
“Community, when done correctly, can become a strong revenue stream for your brand. But again, it takes time and focus.”
Best-In-Class Community-Driven Brands
There’s always a dissonance between what a brand wants and what the consumer wants. The goal is to make that dissonance as small as possible and community helps to bridge that gap. So, what are some examples of top-notch, community-driven brands?
For LaFrance, the first brand that comes to mind is the personal care brand, Blume. They don’t have a Facebook or Slack group. Rather, they build community through a close friends list on Instagram, SMS, and their content—in particular The States of Sex Ed.
“They’re fantastic at community in the way that their community isn’t structured in the way you would expect. It’s not what you immediately picture when we say ‘community.’ And that’s a superpower,” says LaFrance.
Plus, LaFrance says they have one of the best loyalty programs. The brand doesn’t only reward customers for purchasing; they also reward them for taking pictures and joining their close friends list—actions that bring customers closer to the brand— into a closer orbit. They even ran a campaign where they pre-loaded Starbucks gift cards, sent it to their SMS list, and said, “Coffee on Blume until we run out.”
Blume is an excellent example of a decentralized community whereas Modern Fertility has one of the most impressive, DTC centralized communities to date. Their community is embedded straight into their website. They use a platform called Circle, where community members can meet each other and share resources.
A more well-known example? Peloton. It’s more than a fitness company. They use tags as a way for members to connect—whether it’s by city, an affinity for an instructor, or shared interest. Members can high-five each other on the leaderboard, and they also sell merch, enabling immediate connection anywhere and everywhere. “When you see someone with a Peloton shirt, you have an immediate connection with them. And, you can learn a lot about them as a person,” adds LaFrance.
At Repeat, the CPG House comes in the form of a Slack group. When LaFrance first joined the team, she thought potential community members would never want another Slack group. Everyone is sick of Slack, right?
But, then she talked to the first 100 people she would’ve invited to a Repeat community, and everyone requested Slack. Why? That’s where they spend the majority of their time.
“The key: There needs to be a larger connection to the brand than just the product itself.”
How to Activate Community
Once you settle on your goals, what community means to you, and the long-term vision, the work doesn’t stop there. Most importantly, you have to tell your customers where they can find your community. Where does it live?
LaFrance says, “Make sure your community is an important part of your brand, even include it in your post-purchase flows. The time between an order and a delivery is a great time to tell customers about your community.” Other options: share your community on your website, in an SMS campaign, or in a leaflet in your unboxing.
Then, focus on what makes your community so special.
The most engaged community members are the ones who join right in the beginning. Those first touchpoints are important—welcome messages, flows, introductions.
“Think about the onboarding process like a B2B SaaS company or the way you think about an unboxing,” adds LaFrance.
Make the experience unique. Surprise and delight. “Think about your competitors on a larger scale, not just DTC. What is competing for your customer’s attention around the entire product category? How can you stand out?” notes LaFrance.
The final and arguably most important piece of activating a community is to always listen. “Listening is the hardest thing to do and the most important thing to do,” says LaFrance.
It’s all about paying attention. That requires a community manager to constantly observe, listen, and learn from the community. “Let your community guide you on how to continuously grow the community,” adds LaFrance.
“A community manager’s job is 24/7. It’s ongoing. You have to keep listening, learning, sharing, and giving space for the members to drive you forward.”
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